Primrose and the Dreadful Duke
While I did enjoy Primrose and the Dreadful Duke, it seemed the author couldn’t decide what kind of novel she was writing, a light and fluffy romance or a dark mystery. Ms. Larkin tries to do both, but the levity of the principal relationship – a light-hearted, often silly and mostly lovely friends-to-lovers romance, juxtaposed by the search for a murderous villain intent on killing the hero of our story, was awkward and poorly executed. A house party setting, a conniving, slightly bloodthirsty harpy intent on landing a husband, multiple suspects, and a couple intent on hiding away and making love when they weren’t trying to avoid a killer… and well, it was too much. I liked the romance and the principal characters, but since the relationship mostly serves as a distraction from the hunt for a murderer, it wasn’t very satisfying.
Twenty-nine year old Captain Oliver Dasenby never expected to become the Duke of Westfell. But in a series of unfortunate events (over a relatively short span of time), the three of the men in line to inherit the dukedom before him, died. So when Primrose and the Dreadful Duke begins, Oliver is the newly named duke, and he’s slowly acclimating to the new role and its responsibilities. There are privileges and benefits to be sure, but the job is also exhausting and overwhelming. He’s also doing his best to avoid marriage-minded mamas and the Machiavellian attempts of their single daughters to marry him. He’s developed games and tricks to grade these efforts – and they largely distract from the tedium of the various balls and events he’s expected to attend, but none of these are necessary (or applicable) when he’s with the lovely Lady Primrose Garland, the all grown-up, younger sister of his best friend, Rhodes.
‘Prickly’ Primrose Garland doesn’t play games or resort to tricks and gimmicks to gain attention from the opposite sex, and she isn’t interested in marriage. Prim and proper, Primrose loves books, her family, and the life she’s carved out for herself. These days she’s mostly concerned about her brother Rhodes, who, since the death of his beloved wife, has hidden himself away in their London town house. With his children in the country with their grandparents, Rhodes has become something of a sad recluse, and with his happiness in mind, she sets out to find Oliver and convince him to use humor and silliness to coax Rhodes out of his unhappy exile. She’s managed to track down Oliver at a ball, and after a dance and conversation largely focused on Oliver’s inability to take anyone or anything seriously, she asks him for help with her brother. Oliver, dear reader, is no addlepated dimwit – although he enjoys playing one when he’s with the oh-so-serious (and lovely) Primrose – and he’s quick to offer his help. Primrose leaves the ball content a plan is in place to lure Rhodes out of his doldrums, and Oliver leaves the ball concerned for his friend and determined to do whatever he can to help him. He’s reflecting on their conversation when he’s shoved from behind and tumbles down the stairs to the street.
Thus sets in motion the two major plotlines of this story: Oliver’s new awareness of Primrose – and his attraction to her above all other women in his acquaintance – and the repeated attempts of someone to kill him. At first, Oliver isn’t convinced he was pushed down the stairs, but in the days following, he survives another attempt on his life, and it becomes impossible to ignore the obvious – someone is trying to kill him. Oliver turns to Rhodes – whose spirits he’s been determinedly trying to lighten – and (reluctantly) Primrose, for help. The trio arrive at a shortlist of possible killers, and when it turns out their chief suspects are also invited to an upcoming house party, they agree to travel together in order to flush the killer out. Arriving at the gathering – a not so subtle attempt by the hosts to lure Oliver into marriage to their daughter – they discover another villain in their midst… and Oliver and Primrose gradually become aware of an attraction between them.
Charming, funny and just-the-right amount of macho Oliver is the perfect foil to the outwardly calm, cool and collected Primrose. Theirs is a lovely match-up; Oliver capably navigates past Primrose’s rather prickly exterior, giving her a safe space to reveal her playful and passionate sides; Primrose, who secretly loves Oliver’s naughty humor and happy-go-lucky persona, supports and subtly encourages him to believe he’s worthy and capable of managing his inheritance. They dance around their attraction to each other, and their lust simmers in the background of their thoughts whenever they’re together… until they find passion in each other’s arms. The accidental revelation that Primrose can translocate (a gift from a Faerie ancestor) startles Oliver – but doesn’t deter him. After witnessing the machinations of one of the female houseguests vying for his affection, he comes to realize Primrose is the woman who sets his heartbeat racing and he sets his sights on convincing her he’s a worthy partner. Primrose comes to a similar conclusion: she loves the intelligent, charming, passionate man she’s found behind the silly, gregarious façade… she just has to keep him alive. I liked their charming and silly courtship, Oliver’s fascination with Primrose’s ‘gift’, and their secret increasingly passionate encounters – their relationship is the best part of the story. Unfortunately, because there’s a killer at large – and a harpy intent on snagging Oliver for herself – the story frequently detours (awkwardly) to the hunt for the killer and the dangerous house guest.
Although I didn’t love the killer subplot, it adds a measure of gravitas to this otherwise light and fluffy love story. Whodunit and why aren’t difficult to guess, but Ms. Larkin throws a red herring in along the way to misdirect our amateur detectives, and it’s just enough to highlight two likeable secondary characters. There’s never really any doubt that Oliver will survive the attempts on his life, or that the nasty woman targeting her rivals will eventually get her comeuppance, but because the villains are so obvious, it’s a tedious distraction from the love story. I did enjoy the all too brief scenes with the extremely likeable Rhodes (poor guy!), and I wish he was present in more of the story. I’m guessing he’ll get his own novel later on.
Primrose and the Dreadful Duke (there’s nothing dreadful about him at all) works as a romance and fails as a suspense novel. This is a charming and romantic friends-to-lovers romance with a murder subplot shoehorned in, and despite Ms. Larkin’s lovely way with words and two engaging principal characters, the result is entertaining but awkward. If you’re looking for a tightly plotted thriller, with a side dish of love, it’s not quite the thing; but if you like your romance with a side of intrigue, this novel will fit the bill.